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Defining John Boehner

1. Ohio Rep. John Boehner (R), the man who will almost certainly take over as Speaker of the House when the 112th Congress convenes early next year, is a blank slate to large swaths of the public.

A new Gallup poll shows that roughly four in ten people don't know enough about him to offer an opinion, numbers higher than those who view him favorably (34 percent) and unfavorably (26 percent).

Boehner's relative anonymity stands in stark contrast to the woman he will replace -- Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) -- who watched her name identification rise rapidly over the past four years and her unfavorable ratings soar as well.

In a late October Gallup survey, just 29 percent viewed Pelosi favorably while 56 percent regarded her unfavorably. Just 15 percent said they didn't know enough about Pelosi to offer an opinion.

Pelosi's high profile and low popularity numbers turned her into an issue on the campaign trail this fall as hundreds of Republicans ads sought to link Democratic incumbents to the Speaker.

Boehner's lack of name recognition among a large percentage of the public is almost certain to change in the coming months and years as he will be -- at least for much of 2011 -- the face of the Republican party in Washington.

The question is whether Boehner is defined in a more positive or more negative light for voters as his profile rises.

During the fall campaign, the White House -- and President Obama himself -- singled out Boehner as uninterested in fighting for and protecting the middle class.

Expect more of that sort of rhetoric from Democrats as they seek to replicate the success the party had in turning then Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) into a Republican bogeyman.

Boehner allies insist, however, that he has little interest in the spotlight and will not follow in the high profile footsteps of either Pelosi or Gingrich -- perhaps modeling himself on the low key and low profile speakership of Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)

"John is immune to urges involving personal showdowns," Republican consultant Kevin Madden said. "John's focus is on the will of the conference as a whole and its ideas."

(Boehner supporters also note the incoming speaker's pronouncement Wednesday that he would fly on commercial airplanes -- a contrast to Pelosi and Hastert -- as evidence of his everyman approach to politics.)

The fight to define Boehner will be one of the central storylines over the next year. Can he cast himself as a voice for the average person? Or will Democrats succeed in making him symbolic of a too-cozy relationship between Republicans and the business community?

2. Elections officials in Alaska on Wednesday began the arduous task of counting and cataloging more than 92,500 write-in ballots in the state's three-way Senate race.

Before the write-in count began on Wednesday, attorney Joe Miller (R) trailed "write-in candidates" -- the vast majority of which are expected to be votes for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) -- by 11,333 votes. (Murkowski ran as a write-in following her primary defeat at the hands of Miller.)

Murkowski got two pieces of good news on Wednesday. First, a federal judge dismissed Miller's attempt to immediately reject any write-in ballot where Murkowski's name was not spelled perfectly. "From the beginning, it has been our position that slight misspelling of a write-in candidate's name would count," said Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell (R). "I have not wavered from this stance. The state will continue its efforts to count write-in ballots, unless we hear otherwise from the courts."

Second, 98 percent of all write-in ballots counted Wednesday were Murkowski votes, suggesting the idea that some other write-in candidate won a significant chunk is a bit far fetched.

Ben Ginsberg, a top GOP attorney who represented former Sen. Norm Coleman (R) in the 2008 Minnesota Senate recount, is aiding Murkowski. "They're challenging everything," Ginsberg said of Miller's camp.

State Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai told the Anchorage Daily News that the ballot count could go on for as long as five days.

3. California Democratic Rep. Jim Costa declared victory in his reelection race Wednesday, citing a growing lead over his GOP opponent.

The addition of thousands of absentee ballots have turned an 1,800-vote election night deficit into a 1,200-vote lead for the congressman, who appears well-positioned to return to Congress.

His opponent, Andy Vidak, had yet to concede late Wednesday.

"This has been a hard-fought campaign," Costa said. "It appears that it is now over. I believe our 1,200-vote margin will not only stand up but will increase as the remaining few ballots are counted."

Costa is one of two California Democrats still awaiting his fate.

Rep. Jerry McNerney has also been gaining big during the counting of absentee ballots, overtaking Republican David Harmer and building a 1,456-vote lead at last count. McNerney has now also declared victory.

Aside from the two California races, there are five other unresolved House contests: New York's 1st and 25th districts, Kentucky's 6th district, Texas' 27th district and Illinois 8th district. All are held by Democrats. Only in the Kentucky seat does the Democratic incumbent hold a lead currently.

4. Embattled Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign is running surprisingly strongly in potential Republican primary matchups heading into 2012, according to a new poll from Democratic-affiliated automated pollster Public Policy Polling.

Ensign leads Rep. Dean Heller (R) 45 percent to 37 percent and had a wider 55 percent to 27 percent edge over Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki (R).

The PPP poll found Ensign is still viewed favorably by 71 percent of conservatives and 64 percent of Republicans -- both numbers that bode well for the primary.

Ensign must decide in the coming months whether to seek reelection. He's hemorrhaging money from legal bills while dealing with investigations into his affair with a former staffer, and the Republican establishment would clearly like him to step aside in favor of some less ethically damaged candidate.

But, Ensign has stuck around this long -- the affair revelation surfaced in June 2009 -- and polls numbers like these are certain to encourage him.

It's worth remembering in Heller's case, however, he is not a statewide elected official and some of Ensign's current lead may be simply a case of the incumbent being better known.

While Ensign's transgressions have led some to suggest he is unelectable, remember that Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R) had little trouble winning reelection last week despite admitting to his involvement in the "D.C. Madam" prostitution ring.

5. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is the most polarizing potential Republican presidential candidate, but she's also the most popular among Republicans.

A new AP-GfK poll shows Palin with a 46 percent favorable rating and a 49 percent unfavorable rating among all voters; the latter number is by far the highest of any potential 2012 Republican candidate.

But she also has the highest favorable rating when the poll is narrowed to include Republicans and Republican-leaning voters, at 79 percent, with just 17 percent who view her unfavorably.

Her standing with the base is better than that of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is at 64 percent favorable and 21 percent unfavorable.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has the best numbers of all, though his name ID isn't as high as Palin's. Huckabee is seen favorably by 74 percent while 10 percent view him unfavorably.

Both Romney and Huckabee appear to be much more palatable general election candidates than Palin. Their unfavorables among the general population are both closer to 30 percent.

Huckabee is viewed favorably by 49 percent of all voters, versus 27 percent unfavorable. Romney isn't far behind at 46 percent favorable and 31 percent unfavorable.

A fourth potential GOP presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is viewed favorably by 68 percent of Republicans, with 21 percent unfavorable.

The rest of the field remains mostly unknown to the broader electorate.

With Felicia Sonmez and Aaron Blake

By Chris Cillizza  | November 11, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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